We all witnessed yesterday the fall of the fleche, the 800-ton spire of Notre Dame, and privately lamented the loss. The fire swept through the roof, and the fear is that treasures from the medieval world may be now irrevocably damaged or destroyed.
A student raised the question in class: why all the fuss? Stuff like this happens all the time, but readily admitted he knew nothing about Notre Dame de Paris (he knew a certain university for its football team he said). He, in his youthful flippancy, may be right in some sense: nothing is permanent, according to the Buddhist scriptures, and even Old Testament works like Job, underscore that sentiment.
Still, history, and faith, and the building and rebuilding of this cathedral means something: it is a chapter in the tumultuous, and destructive, history of humankind: think of the Baniyan Buddha, the Parthenon, Hindu temples, Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, Palmyra, Constantinople in 1453, pre-Christian Roman temples, and now, many foiled attempts by spiritually ignorant terrorists to obliterate museums and sacred sites around the globe. Now the fire at Notre Dame was accidental, yes, but it is not the first time that any medieval cathedral burned, or that spires fell.
Notre Dame has a fiery history. It rose on the ashes of a Temple of Jupiter, with four successive churches built before the one we think we know. Bishop Sully’s vision in 1163 fueled its completion in 1263, with generations of everyone—from court elites to illiterate peasants– hauling stones, puling ropes, creating scaffolds, cutting wood, making food for the masons—making and remaking a sacred edifice. With its four-part rib vaulting, its magnificent transepts remodeled in the new Rayonnant style, its eventual engineering of flying buttresses, and its unearthly rose windows of Jean de Chelles, it emerged from the French imagination, the fusion of art and science, muscle, and the deep belief of anonymous thousands.
Huguenots attacked Notre Dame, 1548—idolatry they called it. Louis XIV and XV both remodeled the interior to make it fit the new newly emerging neo-classical style, utterly out of sync with the medieval exterior. Both kings would have flunked a class in Introduction to Design Principles.
The so-called Cult of Reason destroyed a beautiful St. Christopher statue in 1786. In 1793, 28 Old Testament statues were summarily beheaded. You would think reasonable men would research the making of these statues and discover they were not, as thought, former kings of France. Humans destroy art, and each other, out of spiritual ignorance.
Notre Dame has withstood much—the arrogance of Napoleon crowing himself, a recent suicide at an altar, bombing attempts, tourists texting, ignoring the art. Hugo and his hunchback of 1831 gave the structure its medieval aura of mystery and intrigue, and in the 1840s, Viollet-le-Duc reconstructs the cathedral in a new medieval style, what he thought would make it look “more medieval.” He adds the spire that fell, he embellishes, redecorates, fashions gargoyles, even adds a St. Thomas statue, which, of course, resembles himself. The strix and the chimera, and other gargoyles were re-sculpted—what 12 million tourists each year see is a 19th century version of the original. Many architects today deride his remake, others applaud his re-visioning.
So, Notre Dame has struggled through much abuse, survived, barely, the French Revolution, and was once used as a storage for food, ammunition, and, well, junk.
She took bullets in WW2, and wounded, stood her ground, underwent cleanings in 1963 and again in 1991.
In a column in the main portal on the western side, an allegory of alchemy appears, a woman with a closed and an open book, and a 7-runged ladder, symbolizing the stages of transformation necessary for spiritual enlightenment. The Church opposed alchemy and yet here is the alchemical emblem, in the main portal, in the trumeau, there for all to see.
Perhaps this image, above all else, best represents Notre Dame herself. She has gone through a plethora of transformations, endured, came through, still stands, deeply wounded. The fire yesterday, though tragic, could, if seen rightly, be a moment for alchemical transfiguration.
Macron and the billionaires like Pinault and Arnault have pledged the political and economic will to rebuild Notre Dame at a time when France is in upheaval, sadly divided.
Disasters often pull us together as humans. Building something together deepens bonds, unleashes creative energies, inspires the disenchanted. What if—just some radical thinking—what if Macron and the French Government enlisted everyone—as was the case when Notre Dame was first built—to rebuild? Ask the yellow vests to join, students, shop owners, believers and non-believers alike to come and help restore? A green tax of diesel fuel aside, social netting aside, the French unemployed might join the stone masons, the architects, the carpenters, and learn new skills. Make it a spiritual act, engage the disheartened, teach new skills, sing as you lift stones.
In a generation, a new Notre Dame will arise, as she always has, and once again, welcome the world to its portals—a place of solace, reflection, faith, history, and majestic art.
Dr. Jeffrey Collins, Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at Oglethorpe, has led numerous study abroad trips for students.